by Pat Holt
Tuesday, May 13, 2003
STOPPING THE FCC FROM TURNING THE PRESS INTO THE BOOK INDUSTRY
We'll see today whether the Federal Communications Commission is going to proceed (of course it will) on its disastrous plan to allow corporations to gobble up even more media in major markets than they ever have before.
By the time you read this, the FCC staff will have sent a recommendation to FCC commissioners urging sweeping changes that will ease the "media cap" in American cities. This means that local outlets for "NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox could have the same corporate parent" in metropolitan areas, according to Eli Pariser at the progressive action group, MoveOn.com.
The date for an official ruling is June 2, but thanks to the eke-it-don't-announce-it policy instituted by FCC chairman Michael Powell some years ago, little debate has surfaced because public hearings have been few.
Powell, an outspoken Republican and the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, was appointed FCC chairman by George W. Bush in 2001 and declared his belief in reducing and eliminating limits on media ownership ever since. FCC restrictions on media monopolies are from "the days of yesteryear," he has said. "I start with the proposition that the rules are no longer necessary and demand that the Commission justify their continued validity."
As I understand it, Powell and the Republican majority of FCC commissioners, view communications as a marketplace in which consumers will set through their "buying" habits - and where the government should take a back seat. The idea is that broadcasters needn't care about public service nor be protected by Free Speech because television itself is a product, something like a "toaster with pictures and/or sound."
It's an interesting point of view for about five minutes, when you realize that Free Speech is so embedded in media and publishing under the umbrella of communications that without regulations we end up with what USA Today worried in 2001 was becoming "a stampede of mergers ... Once it starts ... no one knows where the next round of mergers might stop." (See USA Today's 5/11 followup, "FCC's Media Chief Rolls with Blunt Force," at http://www.usatoday.com/money/media/2003-05-11-ferree_x.htm)
Key among those mergers is radio megalomopolis (okay, my word) Clear Channel's inhalation of independent stations across the country - stations it was accused of buying through "front companies" while it waited for FCC regulations to ease, according to Broadcasting & Cable in November of 2001. (see http://www.broadcastingcable.com/index.asp?layout=story_stocks&articleid=CA183618 )
And my, how those regulations did ease. Today with its ownership of hundreds of stations, Clear Channel is in some cities "the only thing on the dial" (see end). Its right-wing bias is clear, having "used its might to support pro-war political rallies and conservative talk shows, keep antiwar songs off its stations, coerce musicians into playing free promotional concerts and bully them into performing at its music venues," says MoveOn.com (see also HU column #363).
Don't get me wrong - I'm in favor of media bias. Remember that scene in the 1928 stage play, "The Front Page," and the 1940 movie adaptation, "His Girl Friday," where a half-dozen reporters phone in a story to their editors in the newsroom? Every one of the reporters slants the story to fit the newspaper's bias, and the audience laughs because that is American democracy at its most pragmatic. The more newspapers, the more points of view represented. So if objectivity gets thrown out the window in each and every paper, you and I get sort things out by reading them all (or none, or some); it's always *our* choice..
But as Vermont congressman Bernie Sanders stated at an FCC hearing in February, today every TV network is owned by a corporation (NBC by General Electric, CBS by Viacom, ABC by Disney, Fox by Rupert Murdoch). So, Sanders asked, "Why do we want *more* concentration of ownership in the media? We should be moving in the other direction - less concentration, more diverse ownership and more points of view."
That seems so obvious, yet look at the book industry. Thanks to the same short-sighted Milton Friedman mentality ranging from Mr. Trickle-Down Ronald Reagan to both the Bushes, book publishing, which for heaven's sake needs more points of view than any of us ever could count, has fallen under the control of fewer and fewer corporations, many of which own huge chunks of the news media as well.
The only time a government agency even budged in this direction was the Federal Trade Commission's *leak* of the *possibility* that it *might* not approve Barnes & Noble's dastardly plan to buy Ingram Book Company (at which point B&N pulled out). And thanks also to FTC inaction, hundreds if not thousands of independent bookstores closed while the world waited for the FTC to rule on the alleged practice of under-the-table discounts and unfair competition at chain bookstores. Finally it wasn't the FTC but booksellers themselves whose lawsuits brought about some semblance of justice in that corner of the book industry.
I go into this because the struggle to keep the press free and the book industry diverse does not happen in separate or distinct areas but in the whole cloth of communications, whether we like it or not. When a Rupert Murdoch owns Fox TV *and* a newspaper empire *and* HarperCollins, one of the largest book publishers in the world, what happens with FCC regulations is extremely important to all of us.
The same goes for Time Warner Little Brown AOL and Disney Hyperion ABC and Viacom Simon & Schuster CBS and so forth. Thomas Middelhoff, when he was chairman of Bertelsmann Random House Doubleday Gruner + Jahr BMG, made attempt after attempt to crash (pardon me) buy into American broadcasting but was kept out as a foreign entity because of federal regulations; imagine his delight when Michael Powell made a Republican "review" of all FCC rulings mandatory - a "review" that might still usher in the collapse of American radio and television, even though Middelhoff left his post to a less aggressive successor.
A way does exist for an informed citizenry to protest Powell's FCC steamroller. Before the FCC's official review of the new plan on June 2, you can send a statement of dissent to your representatives in the House and Senate by clicking on: http://www.moveon.org/stopthefcc/?id=1344-396007-J13fYiXls5OuiRbXFnqOmw.
If we don't protest, we may see our community fall into the same trap that closed its jaws on Minot, North Dakota a few years ago. Minot is the small town near which a train carrying ammonia went off the rails, releasing the toxic gas and hospitalizing 300 people. When authorities telephoned the six radio stations in Minot to warn residents about the train wreck and the spread of ammonia, however, thanks to the FCC, another disaster occurred.
It turns out that Clear Channel, which owned *all six* stations, had recently made some cutbacks in budgets and staff of the local operations in the six stations. It was cheaper to send music programming, advertisements and news to the six stations from a central Clear Channel source far away. So when the police called to the radio stations to alert the community about the derailed train, nobody answered the phones at *all six stations* for more than an hour.
HUNTER/MCBAIN ON 'CRACKING THE BESTSELLER LIST'
You might expect a veteran of bestseller lists like Evan Hunter to ridicule a "guide" that offers seven easy steps for prospective authors, called "IF YOU WANT TO CRACK THE BESTSELLER LIST."
But in his latest police procedural about the fictional 87th Police Precinct, Hunter, writing under his famous pseudonym, Ed McBain, seems to be giving us the real scoop behind the making of commercial bestsellers.
In "Fat Ollie's Book" (Simon & Schuster; 271 pages; $25), a detective named Ollie Weeks has ambition to, well, crack the bestseller list with a novel about police work. When he finds a give-'em-what-they-want publisher who sends him a letter with surefire steps called "IF YOU WANT TO CRACK THE BESTSELLER LIST," Weeks is inspired.
The guide sounds like one of the old Plot-o-Meters from the pulp fiction era, but perhaps not so surprisingly, the steps it describes, while hilarious and silly, seem usable, important and *true.*
Take a look at the following from Hunter/McBain's novel and see if it doesn't appear that many of today's thriller writers - Ludlum, Balducci, Cussler, Deaver, Grisham (think of "The Pelican Brief"), Morrell, Creighton and others - have followed it religiously:
"IF YOU WANT TO CRACK THE BESTSELLER LIST
"1) YOU MUST CREATE A PLOT THAT PUTS AN ORDINARY PERSON IN AN EXTRAORDINARY SITUATION....
"2) YOU MUST CREATE A PLOT THAT PLAYS OUT A UNIVERSAL FANTASY. You must put the reader in a situation that tests him in ways he's always wanted to be tested, vicariously.
"3) YOU MUST COME UP WITH A PLOT THAT PASSES THE 'COOL' TEST. You must find an idea that makes readers want to read the book simply on the basis of the idea *alone*.
"4) YOUR PLOT MUST INVOLVE HIGH STAKES. You must make clear that the fate of the world hangs in the balance - or, at least, the fate of a character we desperately care about.
"5) YOU MUST INTRODUCE A TICKING CLOCK. You must give your protagonist only a limited amount of time to solve his problem, and the reader should be regularly reminded of the urgency via 'COUNTDOWN CUES.'
"6) BE SURE TO AVOID AMBIGUITY! You must avoid situations where points in favor of both sides diminish the reader's ability to root intensely for one side over another. For example: Novels about the IRA. Novels about murky Central American conflicts. Novels about Pro Choice versus Right-to-Life disputes.
"7) AVOID WRITING ABOUT WHAT'S IN THE NEWS! Editors ... will be seeing a slew of books on *whatever* it is, believe me! Be especially wary of plots about Computer Hackers, Genetic Engineering, Air Disasters, Terrorist Attacks, etc."
Perhaps one reason the list sounds credible is that it reflects the hopes and dreams of the mainstream publishing industry today. Follow this simple formula and you'll sound like a risk-taker but be considered a safe bet at the same time.
I came across the "HOW TO CRACK THE BESTSELLER LIST" (always in caps) while listening to the abridged audiotape of the novel, read by actor Ron McLarty (S&S; 4 cassettes; $26).
I'm not a fan of abridgments, but McLarty's ham-fisted interpretation of Detective Ollie Weeks' New York accent is so thick, barrel-deep and molasses-slow I kept thinking of a cross between Stuart Appelbaum (Doubleday PR) and Len Riggio (B&N chief). Then I had to lie down.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
My first reaction to the issues that were politically oriented was, "What does this have to do with book publishing?" But after the latest issue, I realized you are right to bring this to the attention of your readers. While we read books for information, we get up-to-date information from TV, radio, newspapers and magazines (and we use these venues for research).
But I have given up entirely on newspapers, radio and some magazines. I no longer watch network news. I am at the point of giving up on cable news, too. No one bothers to actually report facts in detail; it's all speculation or parroting of press releases. And the news certainly doesn't cover genuine controversy or bring to light the most important topics. It is controlled by corporations and conservatives, and they deflect criticism and attention away from their actions by instead accusing the media of being liberally biased.
Years ago, (before Bush and the Supreme Court decision), there was a book by the Colliers called "Votescam." At the time, I tried to find it and couldn't, nor did I see it covered in the press or by the media. It says just what you've said in the latest issue about stealing elections. Seems like nothing has changed.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Using the Internet as a news source? If you're going to do that, why not the Enquirer or The Star for print? Come on, Pat, we're losing you here.
Well, let's see. Did you hear the story going around the Internet about the book publishing editor named George Turkelbaum who was "sitting dead at his desk for FIVE DAYS before anyone asked if he was feeling okay"? Goodness, what a searing indictment of those stony hearts in publishing these days! And of course, it was a phony. I know this because the story placed 6th in the Top Ten Hoaxes of 2001, at about.com under Urban Legands. (It originally appeared in the December 5, 2000 issue of a supermarket tabloid called World Weekly News under the headline, "Dead Man Works for a Week!") The point is that the Internet can be self-correcting. Print magazines like Time or Newsweek like to say they *are* the authority, but something like this story on the Internet is easily checked. (Of course the first clue was that the name of the publisher never got mentioned. The book industry is so inbred that the publisher would have been the first thing to slip out.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About the possible emergence in thriller fiction (beginning perhaps with writers like Michael Connelly) about power-mad antiterrorist units in the FBI:
I've been amazed by the emergence of what I can only call "fascist TV," exemplified by Fox's "24 Hours." It's very well-done, even compelling television, but its all-too-explicit (not "sub") text is that civil liberties are a luxury in an age of "terrorism" and that even the President of the United States, when faced with the chance to extract information that can prevent a massive terrorist attack (in this case, nuking LA), can personally torture suspects and remain dignified, morally pure and re-electable. To me, it's the equivalent of "On the Waterfront" - a great movie that taught us informing was good at the height of the McCarthy era.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just wanted to mention, in the context of #365, that the City of Albany, CA, squeezed between Berkeley and El Cerrito in the East Bay, on April 21 passed a resolution strongly disapproving of the Patriot Act as it relates to the continued free and open operation of public libraries.
The resolution was prompted by a letter from the Albany Library Board (a citizen's advisory board, of which I am chair this year) to the City Council, which swiftly took up the issue. The same evening, a more sweeping resolution, urging that disputes between nations be settled by diplomacy and other peaceful means, did not pass.
What made the difference to some council members seemed to be that the operation of the library was considered an appropriate area of City jurisdiction, while a broader pro-peace statement would lead the Council too far afield from its stated purpose. In my opinion, that's a fair argument and perhaps might suggest a course of action for other communities wary of wading into international waters but justly concerned about the local impact of new security legislation.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your comments about Michael Savage and his book:
You may want to read more about Michael Savage (aka Michael Weiner)'s early "literary" career. An article on salon.com deconstructed some of his pre-bestseller books. Tales of Savage hanging out with Ferlingetti and Ginsberg and one piece of laughably bad semi-biographical fiction are worth a look. http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2003/03/05/savage/index_np.html
Dear Holt Uncensored
I thought it would be helpful to provide links where you can learn more about the Patriot Act and it's insidious little brother (coming soon to a legislature near you) Patriot II--with even harsher restrictions.
EFF (One of the most comprehensive analyses of the Patriot Act I've
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) reaction: http://www.pnba.org/booknewsrepeal215thom.htm (VERY SMALL PRINT)
Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association (MPBA) had a petition and lengthy reaction to the Patriot Act. In its place is the fascinating roster of books banned so far this year (Anaheim, CA uses a standard response that the book "is too hard for children and would cause ridicule to the child reading it." (???) Also, I wouldn't know what country I lived in if some Southern town wasn't banning "Catcher in the Rye." http://www.mountainsplains.org/censorship.html
Now there's Patriot II With even broader powers (ABC News): http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/HallsOfJustice/hallsofjustice.html
Beagle Bay Books
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Can you recommend a book on fear for our children (ages 7 & 9). So much of the lunacy of this administration is little more than fear mongering and I was hoping to find a children's book that would present a parable about fear as a way to explain what is happening to us all.
Holt responds: Thanks to Martha Jackson, children's book buyer at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, here's a list of books for children of all ages about fear and sources of fear. Martha says she drew this up after 9/11, so some books may now be in paperback, some hard to find, but they're all worth reading:
Books for Children on Traumatic Events/Post-Traumatic Stress
And God Cried Too: A KidŐs Book of Healing and Hope Marc Gellman, ages 7 & up, 2002
Bad Stuff in the News: A Guide to Handling the Headlines Marc Gellman and Thomas Hartman, ages 9 & up, 2002
Smoky Night ( a story about the L.A. riots) Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Diaz, ages 4-8 1998
Oklahoma City Bombing: Terror in the Heartland Victoria Sherrow, ages 9-12 1998
The Terrorist (novel about a bombing in London) Caroline Cooney, ages 12 & up 1999
World Trade Center Bombing: Terror in the Towers Victoria Sherrow, ages 9-12, 1998 (not about 9/11)
One April Morning: Children Remember the Oklahoma City Bombing Nancy Lamb, illustrations by Floyd Cooper, ages 4-8, 1996
Sami and the Time of the Troubles (Beirut bombings) Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland, illustrated by Ted Lewin, ages 4-8,1995 (paperback)
Why Did It Happen? Helping Children Cope in a Violent World (armed robbery) Janice Cohn, illustrated by Gail Owens, ages 5-9, 1994
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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